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Women and people of color were already at a disadvantage — then the pandemic hit

Two grocery clerks wearing masks.Cashiers wearing protective masks at a grocery store in Bushwick, Brooklyn in New York City on April 2. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The economic crisis exacerbates how much women’s work is undervalued.

The coronavirus has compounded a crisis onto deep, longstanding economic inequities in the United States. And women, particularly women of color, communities of color, and impoverished Americans are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn.

On May 7, Vox Media and the National Partnership for Women and Families hosted a panel conversation about the ways in which the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted different segments of the workforce, and the ways in which people who are already struggling are being further left behind during the pandemic. The discussion delved into how the crisis has affected workers, the disadvantages many people were facing heading into the crisis, and whether there’s hope that any of this will bring about real change. Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, and Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, participated in the panel, along with Vox senior reporter Anna North and Vox reporter Emily Stewart (me).

“In very subtle and not so subtle ways, we have watched these cultural norms and these social policies perpetuate and devalue the work that women do,” said Ness.

Since the onset of the crisis, more than 33 million Americans have filed new jobless claims. More than 20.5 million jobs were lost during the month of April alone, with the unemployment rate skyrocketing to 14.7 percent. Unemployment insurance systems have been overwhelmed, leaving many unemployed people scrambling. Meanwhile, essential workers who have kept their jobs have found themselves in a precarious spot. They continue to go to work, putting themselves and their families at risk, often for low wages and insufficient benefits. Many would rather quit their jobs but feel like they can’t, because doing so usually disqualifies you for unemployment benefits.

Look one layer deeper, and you start to see a picture of what these workers look like. The April unemployment rate was 13 percent for men and 15.5 percent for women; it is 14.2 percent for whites, 14.5 percent for Asians, 16.7 percent for blacks, and 18.9 percent for Hispanics. And across every racial group, the unemployment rate for women is higher than it is for men. And many essential jobs are disproportionately held by women, people of color, and those who are already vulnerable.

“Very few people realize the extent to which women are these frontline workers and essential workers that we’re talking about,” Ness said.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed many cracks in the system and exacerbated longstanding inequalities. Take, for example, the gender pay gap: Women make about 80 cents to the dollar compared to men, and for black and Hispanic women, the statistics are much worse. Women with full-time employment lose a collective estimated $900 billion each year. Now, in the global pandemic, government officials have shuttered broad swaths of the economy. Those making less money before, and therefore less able to save, have a harder time weathering the storm.

“If you are paid less money, you are less able to absorb any kind of crisis or disruption in income,” said Dixon.

When the US begins to emerge from the coronavirus crisis and the economic catastrophe that comes with it, the question then becomes whether some positive change can come of the pandemic. More Americans have suffered the consequences of an insufficient social safety net, and the country has recognized how essential some often under-recognized workers are. Policies and government actions that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago — stimulus checks for American households, expanded unemployment benefits — have been enacted. The country could revert to how it was before, or it could look toward a sort of new New Deal, like what happened after the Great Depression, and create a more equitable America.

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